In Iceland

Beth Levin

[February 2006.]

I’m back home in Park Slope enjoying Bleak House on PBS and strolling the streets in sweet anonymity. Last week it was the streets of Reykjavik, Iceland. I was there for a Mozart’s-birthday concert. I felt a bit like Woody Allen in his Chassidic dreadlocks — an outsider whose forebears never crossed paths with Vikings.

I arrived in the dark morning. The Icelandic Spring has just begun and the light is still iffy. The bright sun appeared but twice during my stay. Mostly I walked about in a light rain, 40-degree temperatures, with change forever imminent: fog, winds, sleet, snow, a balmy patch, all in the space of minutes. Mother Nature informs the Icelandic character with a fearless quality — call it moxie — along with humility in the face of her powerful whims. Icelanders are proud of their place in Scandinavia’s Far North. In the street, smiles are hard to come by. A general gruffness, which I came to respect, hints at a softer core.

Each day I rehearsed at a museum featuring the work of Johannes Kjarval, one of Iceland’s great painters. His work centers on landscapes, sagas and portraits — a visual treat I enjoyed during breaks. The Steinway was another source of inspiration: clear and warm, with an inherent legato, allowing the performer a freedom to express color and mood. The instrument possessed that rare capacity: response to the imagination’s impulses.

It was my colleague, violinist Laufey Siguroardottir, who invited me to Iceland to play. Laufey was in charge of the festival and had asked the city for funding and support. Despite the details she needed to sort — deadlines, contacts, scheduling — in rehearsal she served the music. My own pressures were simply those of an artist desiring to excel. Laufey and I felt an immediate rapport and proceeded to explore, tacitly and with speech, the A major sonata, K. 526. I remember Rudolf Serkin (a musical god in Iceland) saying little during rehearsals yet making his intentions thoroughly understood. One day the press showed as we were romping through the Presto. The action shots made good newspaper fodder.

Laufey’s mother, a great actress, died young. She was raised by her grandmother. With her blond hair, blue-eyed gaze and fierce honesty, with particular respect for the music, she embodied for me the Nordic woman. She had saved her husband, a poet, from a grave illness and they now had a 12-year-old daughter.

Our cellist, Richard Talkowsky, born and raised in Maplewood, New Jersey, has been working in the Icelandic Symphony for 20 years. While the notion of a small world is popular, under the surface I’m not sure of its veracity. Yes, there are American influences in Iceland. One can turn on the TV and watch Friends or House. Quentin Tarantino was just there to film. Hillary Clinton went shopping on Laugavegur and the gossip is that she emerged from one upscale shop with a “gift” from the management. That said, Icelandic culture in its depths exhibits aspects incomprehensible to the outsider.

The trio rehearsals for K. 542 felt uncomplicated, almost simple. Right away I saw the role of the piano as gluing everything together and setting tempi, as balancing the sound and portraying Mozart’s markings with a purity of expression. In Mozart sometimes it’s good to get out of the way of the music. One walks a thin line between precision and profound emotion.

Entering the stage with Laufey on Mozart’s birthday to a full house was an exhilarating moment. Rehearsals done, the music was ready to take flight. The luscious second movement sits between two brilliant displays of speed and power. The opening to the third is so treacherous that I spoke a hushed “One” to give Laufey a solid entrance. We laughed and suffered so about that spot.

The trio followed and again we basked in the second movement, a naïve melody of varied repetitions, before hurtling into the final Allegro. The breakneck cadenzas threatened to get away from me but, happily, I remained in control, ever so grateful for those hours of practice. Neither Laufey nor I noticed that Richard, having not performed chamber music in public for a long while, was nervous. Backstage he sagged and moped. It was all we could do to convince him that no one in the audience noticed.

After the intermission I performed Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K. 511, a poignant work with flashes of anger, sadness, tenderness and wit. Performing it is a balancing act, restraining the music’s strongest moods within a context that won’t betray the writing’s purity — a bit like netting Tosca and confining her to a gilded cage. While the trio and the sonata end in orchestral chords, the Rondo ends in a whimper, a barely audible V-I.

Silence. No one moved or applauded. Then it began softly, gaining and sustaining for what seemed an age. I like to think that I penetrated gruffness just a bit that night.

I’m back in Park Slope, strolling in sweet anonymity. But I’m not quite the same.


[More Beth Levin]
[Previous Article: Fresh and Canned]